1977: Atnafu Abate, Mengistu’s last rival

Add comment November 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1977,* Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam eliminated one of his last political rivals with the execution of Atnafu Abate.

The men’s relationship had long been complex and unclear; Abate backed the Derg’s “Black Saturday” mass executions in 1974, and sometimes lined up as Mengistu’s ally over the succeeding years as part of the Derg military junta.

At the same time, there were rumors that things between Mengistu and Atnafu were so tense that they pulled guns at meetings.

Atnafu’s absence (by accident or design) during an early 1977 purge within the Derg left the conservative and Orthodox Atnafu officially second-in-command, and unofficially the last real or potential rival to Mengistu.

His elimination was widely expected, though exactly why it went down, when it went down has never been transparent. Mengistu’s grip on the country was already secure enough to have launched the Red Terror.

The New York Times‘ Nov. 15 report of this development captures a bit of the Alice-in-Wonderland political logic evidently at work.

The Ethiopian press agency, which made the announcement, also released what amounted to a six-page indictment listing “twelve specific antirevolutionary crimes,” and “five specific arch-reactionary stands” attributed to Colonel Atnafu, who had served as vice chairman of the provisional military administrative council.

The statement charged Colonel Atnafu with opposing “proclamations intensifying the revolution,” manifesting “a feudal arrogance while on visits to various provinces,” and consorting after working hours with what the statement called riff-raff of the aristocracy and military bourgeois, as well as “extremely dangerous imperialist agents — especially CIA agents.”

The statement also charged that “he had repeatedly confessed at meetings that he did not believe in the ideology of the working class.”

But perhaps the section of the statement that most accurately reflects the bewildering tone of political rhetoric and chaos in Addis Ababa, was one that charged that the proof of Colonel Atnafu’s “reactionary stands” was his placing of Ethiopian national interests before ideological considerations.

“At this time,” said the document, “when workers, farmers, the men in uniform and all the toiling masses are intensifying the revolutionary struggle guided by the principles of Marxism-Leninism, Lieut. Col. Atnafu has been antagonistic to the idea and has instead by way of dilatory tactic, argued that the interest of Ethiopia should be put before ideology.”

* As reported by the London Times gloss (articles Nov. 14 and Nov. 15) of a state radio report given in Ethiopia on Nov. 13. “A revolutionary measure” was the official euphemism for the action taken against Atnafu Abate.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,History,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1938: Bela Kun, Hungarian Communist leader

2 comments August 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938 — so the Soviet government finally announced in 1989, after decades of opacity — the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun was secretly shot by firing squad in the gulag.

The pudgy and pugnacious* onetime journalist whose capture by the Russians during World War I enabled him to get in on the ground floor with the Bolshevik Revolution became the de facto leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. For a few months in 1919, it was the world’s second Soviet state after Russia itself.

Bela Kun’s moment in the sun was particularly notorious for his advocacy late in the Soviet Republic’s brief life of a Red Terror against internal opposition. Several hundred people were killed over the last few weeks of the state’s existence, until a Romanian invasion toppled the reds and sent Bela Kun fleeing back to the Soviets. There, he’s supposed to have brought his gift for wholesale murder to surrendered White prisoners in the Crimea.

Still, Hungary was an insurrectionary success next to most everywhere else, and Bela Kun was detailed to Germany to revive the flagging fortunes of a revolution that the Bolsheviks thought would be critical to sustaining their own. Modeling on Lenin’s own coup d’etat in 1917, Kun pushed the Germans to go all-in on an aggressive 1921 “March Action” offensive to capture state power — which backfired catastrophically, essentially marking the end of the post-World War I revolutionary window. Vladimir Ilyich gave his Magyar counterpart a dressing-down for that gambit at that summer’s Comintern summit.

He’d become associated in this time with Zinoviev, an Old Bolshevik whose comradeship would blow an ill wind come the killing time of the 1930s. Kun himself was long past his sell-by date at this stage, knocking around Moscow feuding with other Hungarian exiles.

Stalin eventually had him arrested for “Trotskyism”, and he disappeared into the Gulag never to be seen again.

Like many purge victims, Bela Kun was rehabilitated under Khrushchev, which also made him fitting source material for statuary congenial to the post-World War II Hungary, situated (however unhappily) within Moscow’s sphere. Some of the detritus of this age can be found at Budapest’s Mememto Park outdoor fairgrounds of discarded Communist kitsch.


Bela Kun, marshaling the Magyar masses. The streetlamp behind him (a literary symbol of hanging) alludes to his martyrdom. Wider views of the entire monument: 1 | 2

* He had a rep in his youth for fighting duels.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Hungary,Infamous,Jews,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1968: Lin Zhao, martyr poet

8 comments April 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1968, a “rightist” student whose critique of the Cultural Revolution was not blunted by the rigors of imprisonment was informed that her jail sentence had been changed to execution — which was immediately imposed at Shanghai’s Longhua Airport.

Utterly obscure at her death, Lin Zhao’s memory was tended by those closest to her, passed down like samizdat to latterly emerge out of Mao’s shadow.

An impassioned young intellectual at Peking University and a dedicated Communist with an irrepressible sense of justice, Lin Zhao once called Mao the “red star in my heart” and actually supervised the execution of a landlord during the country’s land reform push in the early 1950s.

But she also refused to temper or retract her criticisms of China’s path when the government abruptly reversed its brief flirtation with pluralism.

In 1960, after circulating a petition for fallen Communist (but not orthodox Maoist) Marshal Peng Dehuai, Lin was arrested, and eventually sentenced to a 20-year term.

It is here that the judicious person discovers the error of her ways, and accepts such terms as she can make for herself.

Not Lin Zhao.

Lin kept writing. Poetry, political manifestos, letters to the newspaper — hundreds of thousands of “reactionary” words. When they took away her ink, she opened her veins and wrote in blood.

By the end, official maltreatment and Lin’s own hunger strikes had wasted her away to less than 70 pounds. She was literally plucked from her prison hospital bed on this date by soldiers who drug her (gagged) to a show trial and execution. But like Marshal Peng, she never bent.

“Better to be destroyed,” she told her doctor, “than give up one’s principles.” (He’s quoted in Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China.)

Somehow, many of her hematic scribblings (saved by the prison, for possible use against her down the road) were smuggled out to her loved ones.* Somehow, they made their way to filmmaker Hu Jie, who put Lin Zhao back on the cultural map with the banned but well-received 2004 documentary Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (or In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul).

This movie can actually be seen in its entirety in 10-minute installments on YouTube as of this writing.

Lin Zhao was posthumously exonerated by a Shanghai court in 1981. Despite Hu Jie’s efforts, she is still little known in her country, or abroad.

Phosphorescent green light never goes out
And lighting up souls every night
Preserving the soul
Letting go the crippled body
Burning into ashes in misfortune
Someday with a red flower on the head
Recognizing the blood stains
Just as copying a bright red flower
Impossible to paint the real color

One of Lin Zhao’s poems, inscribed on her tomb

* Stanford’s Hoover Institution also holds a collection of Lin Zhao papers.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Shot,Women,Wrongful Executions

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